The Tideline

by Andy Oldfield

It was 15 years since I’d said goodbye to my father and eaten salmon sandwiches at his funeral. The last time we’d walked this Cornish shoreline together must have been fifteen years before that. God knows when the first time was.

Even so, the reunion was as unexpected as his departure had been. Which is to say not totally. He’d been 75 then, but so full of life that immortality didn’t seem out of the question. When he’d gone, his after image burnt brightly in my memory, a young man in old photographs and an old man in recent videos. Jaunty, smiling simulacra inhabiting our shared timeless past with a direct line to my present. Which is only to be expected. Likewise the feeling that one day he would be back again. Just like him to turn up unannounced, though.

The kids were way down the beach, working on tans, playing football, doing whatever kids do when their parents go off for a walk along the sand. Just goes to show how old I’m getting. What is it now? Fiftysomething going on six thousand? I couldn’t remember what I used to do when my old man went off on his own. The memory was almost there, but not quite.

The pull of the present was too strong for idle reminiscence. Everywhere was a riot of vibrant summer color: umber rock, gray granite, turquoise sea, yellow sand, blue sky, green grass, pink thrift, white clouds.

A barely perceptible offshore breeze carried the warmth and smells of the earth to mix with those of the sea. Seals played in the choppy surf darting in and out of the shadow cast by the lighthouse in the afternoon sun. Their eyes occasionally fixed on me and made me shudder; eyes so dark they were like black holes sucking in everything around them.

I watched them roll and dive, surfacing again in silence or with a raucous explosion of water and sound. I remembered my dad, his face red like antique leather, sitting on the flat rocks of the reef exposed by the tide, watching a previous generation of seals enjoying their brief lives. With his white hair, Popeye forearms and pipe of slightly sweet tobacco he could have passed for an ancient mariner. He’d been a sailor once, and whenever he looked out to sea, it was with an expression that was difficult to read, as if he was concentrating hard, seeing things denied to normal mortal sight, his eyes dark like those of the seals.

The past and present tumbled together. On the beach, the shift was subtle. The wind turned onshore and the scent of grass and flowers gave way to salt and sea weed. Mist crept in from the ocean and gradually robbed the landscape of color. Gray seals melted into graying water, out of sight, out of this world.

Then the wind stilled. An explosion of memory. A flash of neural connections. I thought I could smell my father’s tobacco borne on the mist. And then he came. At first indistinct, a skeletal impression hovering in the foggy distance on top of the rocks. With each step closer, he grew more definite and sharply focused, as if each stride laid more flesh on his bones.

I was surprised. I thought I’d gotten over the grieving process ages ago. It was years since the hallucinations, dreams and wistful thinking where he had constantly hovered out of reach. Those mind-wrenching moments when I thought I’d seen him in a crowd so large I couldn’t push my way through to him, or alone but so distant that by the time I’d got to where he was, he’d vanished. Clinical symptoms of grief. All worked out and under control, I supposed. Ghosts exorcised by analysis. Perhaps I’d under-estimated my own psychology and the power of this place. 

I watched him come closer. Unmistakable. Yet, at any moment, I expected him to be swallowed up again by the mist, or turn into an innocent stranger, mildly anxious that I should be staring so hard at him.

Neither happened.

He came up to me, took the pipe from his mouth. “You all right, lad?” he said, tapping the bowl against a barnacle-encrusted rock.

“It is you.”

“Glad to see your education didn’t go to waste.”

Fifteen years in the grave hadn’t changed him. “You look… No different.”

“Things don’t change much,” he examined the pipe, re-lit it. “Not in the big picture, anyway.”

I touched him. “You’re real.”

He put his hand on my shoulder. “Very.”

His arms were around me, pulling me to him. The warmth of his body and the smell of his clothes and his pipe lit a fuse paper in my mind and thoughts and pictures screamed inside my head, exploding like Roman candles and rockets launched decades ago but only now hitting their target.

“Where’ve you been? I’ve missed you?” Tears trickled. I tasted salt.

“I’ve missed you too, son. Sometimes. Thought about you a lot. And my grandchildren. So many memories. There’s plenty of time for memories when you’re dead.”

“Couldn’t you have come earlier?”

“I don’t know. Don’t think so.” He looked puzzled, like someone who has just woken and is unsure where they are. “I came as soon as I could,” he said, composure regained, “but time gets trickier when you’re older. And dead. But I came.”

The mist thickened, and a thought struck me: if the sun shone through right now, would it burn him back into the grave and leave me all alone with a quickened and heavy heart, and a head that ached with leaking memories?

“Buggered if I know,” he said, reading me like a book. He held out a hand. “Come with me.”

A chill ran down my neck, as if the reaper himself beckoned with skeletal fingers. “Come where?”

“Yonder,” he said with a wink.

His pupils were moist and black, as black as the heart of a collapsed star. I fell into them and felt his warmth and love. I took his hand and gave him my trust. Like a six-year-old who wants to be guided out of the dark and into light and safety, I shut my eyes against the world and let myself be led.

“We’re here,” he said.

I opened my eyes and grinned. The hum of generators. The noise of the crowd. The best day of the year. Candy floss melted in my mouth as I looked up into the evening sky of an October long gone. The big wheel whirled, the string of lights along its side blurring into colored circles of red and yellow, blue and green. Roars and screams of delight spilled from the seats as they bucketed up, almost out of sight, into the atmosphere.

“Do you want to have a go on that?” Dad’s hair was black and shiny with Brylcreem. His young face urged me to say yes and give him an excuse to clamber aboard. But the wheel went very high. Higher than my ambitions.

“One day,” I said and his shoulders drooped slightly.

“Helter skelter first,” I said, pulling him out of the flow of the crowd and towards the entrance to the rickety tower.

“So young,” he said.

In an instant I had an itchy rush mat in my hands, grabbed from the pile in the sawdust, and one foot on the wooden stairs winding up to more manageable heights.

“It’s a tanner for the nipper, mate,” the man said to my dad. Dad gave him a half-crown as bright as the moon. “Ta, mate. Two bob change. Catch ’im over there.”

And then each foot raced the other up the stairs, dragging me behind them. From the top I saw the town stretch out on all sides, lights winking and glimmering through smoke. I was a spaceman in my rocket. Ready for blast off. I put the mat on the slide and sat on it. “Four, three, two, one…” I flew and swooped to Earth, my six-year-old world out of focus, my six-year-old tummy tingling.

When I fell backward off the mat, there was pain and surprise. Bare legs. Friction burns. No words for it. I know plenty of words now, but not in the now that was then. Just tears and noise. Followed by hugs. Big boys don’t cry. Good job I’m little, I thought through earnest sobs and snatched breaths. What do daddies know?

What do they know when you get older? Nine-years old. I’m walking home after swimming. Can swim a whole width underwater with my goggles. Cost me one shilling and threepence from the shop on the corner. Have to hold my nose, though. Otherwise water gets up it and then I have to stand up and cough and splutter.

At the chippie, fries have gone up to ninepence, but I buy a bag anyway and eat them on the way home. I can’t tell where the chlorine in my throat ends and the vinegar in my mouth starts. I like that.

I walk back over the bridge. The river’s black and wide in the dark. Smells horrible. It’s here where I saw that man last week. He was running with his willy sticking out his trousers. Bet he needed the toilet really bad. Sometimes I run to the bathroom like that when I need a wee. Get the pajamas out of the way ready. No time once you’re at the toilet!

He still had his willy hanging out when he asked me if I wanted 10 bob. I did. Ten shillings? I only get one and six pocket money. I went into the garden with him, like he asked. All I had to do was jerk him off, he said. 

“What’s that mean?” I said. 

He went all red. “OK,” he said. “Fifteen bob.”

I still didn’t know what he meant. His willy had gone all stiff. He made a grab at me then, so I punched him and he ran away.

The policeman told my dad that I wouldn’t know what jerking off meant yet. He was right, but him and my dad knew OK. I drew the police a picture of the man. They didn’t take it away with them though.

The incident seems to replay, but this time it’s a dream-like edit with me playing two roles: adult and child, space and time out of synch. It’s not quite the same, but I’m walking back home again. Following myself as I trail chips and vinegar. A man is following me. Alarm bells ring and I’m aware of following my pursuer. This feels strange, though. How can you look out for yourself in retrospect?

The little boy stops to look over the parapets at the dark river squirming under the bridge. The man ducks behind a stone bench so that the boy can’t see him. I duck behind it as well. I grab the man. “What the fuck are you following that little kid for?”

My dad turns round to face me. “That’s my…” he frowns as he looks at my grown-up face. 


“That’s… my lad. That’s… you,” he frowns and then shrugs as if it’s all sorted out. “A bloody pervert nearly got him, got you, last week.”

“I know.”

“I’m not going to let that happen again.”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “No harm done. I coped well enough on my own. I didn’t need our help. I was resilient as well as innocent.”

“Never thought of you as an innocent,” he said. “Perhaps that’s why you were always getting into trouble.”

I laughed. “You may as well let me make my own way home. I never knew you did this for me. Thanks, anyway.”

“There’s a lot you never knew,” he said. A mist blew in from the river, and he disappeared into it. Or I did. Whichever way round it was, I heard his voice. “Come on,” he shouted. “Follow me. Keep up.”

When I caught up with him again, he was in the pub.

At the bar. A teenage version of me sat at a table by the grimy window looking out over the main street towards the river. He helped himself to cheese and onion crisps from a packet on the table top.

I was used to being in two places at once now. The observer in the shadows and the boy in the spotlight. The shadows were in the corner, beyond the pool table. The spotlight was on the youth. Sunday lunch time, under-age drinking sessions. Dad getting the first pints in.

“Is he eighteen?” I hear the barman ask, looking in my adolescent direction.

“Course he is,” lies dad.

I’m scowling at the table by the jukebox as my dad carries the beers over. I can remember that scowl so well. The simple messages of confusion it signals. It’s just not right, I recall thinking. Without him, I wouldn’t get served. Even though I’ll be old enough in four years.

My mates from school have seen me through the window as they walk past. They’re jealous that I have access to the inner sanctum. That’s good. But if they ask me how come, I’ll have to admit it’s only because of the old man. As dads go, he’s OK. Buys me beer, only mildly rubbishes the music I put on the jukebox. But he’s old and I’m not, as I keep telling him.

I want to live the life I think is waiting for me, the life I imagine I want. Break with the past. Forget it. Look only to the future. It’s my world that lies ahead, my mates’ world too. Parents have had their time.

In the shadows, I strain my ears as dad and I talk by the window.

“He didn’t want to serve us,” he said. “Asked me if I was sure you were of age. But I told him…” He raised his glass, took a sip of bitter. “Told him you were my lad and old enough to vote.”

“Yeah, but I’m not,” I snapped. “Not old enough to do anything.”

“You’re old enough to have bum-fluff on your chin,” he said. “Why don’t you shave it until it grows properly?”

“At least I’ve got hair growing on the top of my head, not like you,” my adolescent comeback is instantaneous. The wounded me almost knocks the drinks over as he kicks his stool back and petulantly marches off to the toilet. 

In his absence I go over to my dad. “Am I giving you grief?”

“Always bloody are,” he said. “Cheers.”

“Cheers.” I drank from my pint. “There’s so much I never said.”

“Aye, well,” he said. “You’re not the first to realize that.”

“So much to be sorry about. I must have hurt you many times.”

“Sorry doesn’t help,” he said. “Anyway, there’s nothing to be sorry about. You were young. I was once. Kids have always been like that. It’s part of growing up, part of the never-ending story. You know that now, don’t you?”

“Suppose so,” I said, against a backdrop of flashbacks of my kids and their teenage tantrums, shouting fits, declarations of hate. “But still. Did I ever tell you I loved you?”

He grinned, opened his mouth to reply. “Better clear off, unless you want to talk to yourself. You’re on your way back now.”

It was true. I glanced across the pub and watched myself putting a coin in the jukebox. “God knows what rubbish you’re putting on,” dad said. 

I smiled, slipped back into shadows and watched myself sit back down at the table, pick up the pint and say: “Cheers dad” as if never a cross word had been spoken. 

A blink and twenty years had gone. My hair was thinning and what was left of my dad’s was silver. Adults now. United in maturity and mortality, older and wiser. Little children of my own, remind me vicariously of my own childhood, and my father’s parenthood. Of his childhood and his father.

“Is that it?” I asked, back on the fog-shrouded reef. “Were you sent back to remind me about mortality, life and love? Give me a chance to make amends for things undone and unsaid?”

Invisible ocean breakers crashed on unseen rocks and his voice washed over me.

“It’s not like that,” he said. “Not that neat and tidy. You can’t make up for lost time. Everything evens out in the end. Don’t worry.”

“But,” I said, prompting a reply that didn’t come. “Dad?” 

No answer. I was alone in the sea fog.

I was alone in my father’s house. My footsteps echoed down his hallway as I approached his living room. It felt so familiar, reaching out for that cold door handle. As I twisted it, I noticed the wrinkles on the back of my hand. No longer young. How had that happened?

As the door swung open, I anticipated and re-lived what had happened 15 years ago. The living room failed to live up to its name. A sprawled figure in front of the stereo, a lamp knocked from the table, a spilled glass on the carpet. I knelt by the figure, face down on the floor. “Dad,” I said. “Again.”

I rolled him onto his back and stared at my own lifeless face. “What?” I said. There was no reply. I picked up his empty glass, my empty glass, and the smell of whiskey danced sadly in my nose. A drink for the funeral of men.

We sat on a cliff top so high that we could have used the full moon to rest our drinks on. My dad looked more like the ancient of days than the ancient mariner. Miles below galaxies swirled and universes of lives played out their infinite varieties.

“So,” I said. “Did you come to see me, or did I come to see you?”

“Good question,” he said. “Except it assumes causality.”

“Since when have you been the philosopher?”

“For ever and forever.”

“So am I dead or what?”

“An old Chinese man once told me that no one has the freehold on his body and that the lease expires sooner than you think it will.”

“Should that make me feel any better about getting evicted?”

“Someone else said that love and memory persist, though,” he said.

I stepped off the cliff and out of the fog. I stretched on the beach, as the warmth of the sun cooked my bones. Feeling old and young, I saw my son walking along the beach towards the reef. He was middle-aged now, staring out to sea with a look of deep concentration and melancholy. A look I recognized. As the sea mist began to gather, I set off to meet him on the tideline where the land disappears beneath the sea, and memory empties into the universe.

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